Kehinde Wiley

Los Angeles native and New York based visual artist, Kehinde Wiley has firmly situated himself within art history’s portrait painting tradition. As a contemporary descendent of a long line of portraitists, including Reynolds, Gainsborough, Titian, Ingres, among others, Wiley, engages the signs and visual rhetoric of the heroic, powerful, majestic and the sublime in his representation of urban, black and brown men found throughout the world. By applying the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, history, wealth and prestige to the subject matter drawn from the urban fabric, the subjects and stylistic references for his paintings are juxtaposed inversions of each other, forcing ambiguity and provocative perplexity to pervade his imagery.
Wiley’s larger than life figures disturb and interrupt tropes of portrait painting, often blurring the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation and the critical portrayal of masculinity and physicality as it pertains to the view of black and brown young men.
Initially, Wiley’s portraits were based on photographs taken of young men found on the streets of Harlem. As his practice grew, his eye led him toward an international view, including models found in urban landscapes throughout the world – such as Mumbai, Senegal, Dakar and Rio de Janeiro, among others – accumulating to a vast body of work called, “The World Stage.”
The models, dressed in their everyday clothing most of which are based on the notion of far-reaching Western ideals of style, are asked to assume poses found in paintings or sculptures representative of the history of their surroundings. This juxtaposition of the “old” inherited by the “new” – who often have no visual inheritance of which to speak – immediately provides a discourse that is at once visceral and cerebral in scope.
Without shying away from the complicated socio-political histories relevant to the world, Wiley’s figurative paintings and sculptures “quote historical sources and position young black men within the field of power.” His heroic paintings evoke a modern style instilling a unique and contemporary manner, awakening complex issues that many would prefer remain mute. Kehinde began with studying art back in LA as a young kid. He first went to art school when he was about 11 and went to big museums in Southern California. Kehinde grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the late 80’s and was very much a part of the environment that was driven by some of the defining elements of hip-hop: the violence, anti-social behavior, streets on fire. He was fortunate because his mother was very much focused on getting him, his twin brother, and other siblings out of the hood. On weekends Kehinde would go to art classes at a conservatory. After school, they were on lockdown.
It was something Kehinde hated, obviously, but in the end it was a lifesaver. In art school, he just liked being able to make stuff look like other stuff. It made him feel important. Back then, it was basic apples and fruit and understanding light and shadow.
From there he did the body and a lot of self-portraiture. So much of what he does now is a type of self-portraiture. As an undergrad at the Art Institute of San Francisco, he really honed in on the technical aspects of painting and being a masterful painter.
And then at Yale it became much more about arguments surrounding identity, gender and sexuality, painting as a political act, questions of post-modernity, etc. The World Stage is comprised of what he believes are countries on the conversation block in the 21st century.
Many of the reasons why he chooses certain sites have to do with a level of curiosity, but it also has to do with their broader, global, political importance- strategically for America, and the world community at large. One of the reasons Kehinde chose Brazil, Nigeria, India and China is that these are all the points of anxiety and curiosity and production that are going on in the world that are changing the way we see empire. As he’s been traveling, he started to notice that the way many people in other parts of the world interact with American culture is through black American expression. It’s an interesting phenomenon. And when he started to do that, he had to ask himself some questions. Am I going to base this project on Western painting? Increasingly the answer was no because there was a wealth of history in each of these countries.
Kehinde loved when he walked into LACMA as a kid and seeing Kerry James Marshall’s grand barbershop painting. But it was thrown into very sharp relief when thinking about the absence of other black images in that museum. There was something absolutely heroic and fascinating about being able to feel a certain relationship to the institution and the fact that these people happen to look like him on some level. One of the reasons he’s chosen some of these zones had to do with the way you fantasize, whether it be about your own people or far-flung places, and how there’s the imagined personality and look and feel of a society, and then there’s the actuality that sometimes is jarring, as a working artist and traveling from time to time. Being in southern India, that black American hip hop culture is everywhere and to see it in sharp relief on these brown bodies in south Asia is something extraordinary, something that he wanted to get down without even fully understanding the entirety of the cultural context. Kehinde thinks that, it’s important to destabilize yourself, and he does it because he wants to see people who look like him. He casts all his models on the streets of New York, and in the case of The World Stage, on the streets of that respective country. He has a camera crew with him, examples of his work and usually an attractive woman with him because there’s something homoerotically charged about this whole interaction. Kehinde, as a male talking to another male, and predisposing that there’s some kind of beauty being exchanged or desired. Usually on the American street there’s this kind of celebrity culture where people aren’t shocked, but they’ve been found. Whereas in places like Nigeria or Brazil, even Sri Lanka, people didn’t know what was going on. It took a lot more explanation, and they would still say, “Well, why me?” In America, it’s, “Of course me”. When street casting, he looks for alpha male behavior and sensibility, but what that ultimately ends up looking like can be sometimes conflicting.
Sometimes someone who is very large in presence and gait is in the same photo shoot as someone rather small. He doesn’t think that, he’s a formula for it, but it’s sort of in the process that it all comes out.
Classical European paintings of noblemen, royalty and aristocrats. His goal was to be able to paint illusionistically and master the technical aspects, but then to be able to fertilize that with great ideas. He was trained to paint the body by copying the Old Master paintings, so in some weird way this is a return to how he earned his chops — spending a lot of time at museums and staring at white flesh. If one looks at his paintings, there’s something about lips, eyes, and mucous membranes. Is it only about that? No. It asks, “What are these guys doing?’ They’re assuming the poses of colonial masters, the former bosses of the Old World. Whenever he does photo shoots for paintings, he pulls out a stack of books, whether it be something from the High Renaissance or the late French Rococo or the 19th century, it’s all thrown together in one big jumble. He takes the figure out of its original environment and place it in something completely made up. Most of the backgrounds he ends up using are sheer decorative devices. Things that come from things like wallpaper or the architectural façade ornamentation of a building, and in a way it robs the painting of any sense of place or location, and it’s located strictly in an area of the decorative.
For the backgrounds in the World Stage Series, he look for traditional decorative objects, textiles, or devotional objects of that culture to draw upon. The reason why he is painting women now is in order to come to terms with depictions of gender and the way it is featured art historically–a means to broaden the conversation.
Any consideration of male power in painting naturally includes the presence of women within that dialogue. “An Economy of Grace” is an investigation of the presence of women in painting, but in a broader sense, it is a investigation of the negotiation of power in image-making. For this body of work he looked to 18th and 19th-century society portraits for inspiration.
At that time it was common practice for nobility to commission unique clothing for portraiture. By working with a major fashion house on this project (Givenchy), we’re revamping that tradition for the 21st century. He’s always been a big fan of Givenchy and Riccardo Tisci’s work, so it was a wonderful opportunity to work with him.

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